#SuperstitionSat Highlights: Superstitions in Literature with #BookWormSat

Greetings, folks! We bid you welcome to another round of Highlights of our #SuperstitionSat Sessions. Yesterday (17/09/22), we had planned for a fundraising Session with our bookish pals at #BookWormSat, but you were all so generous towards our Ko-fi goal last week that this turned out to be… a celebratory Session instead! As you will have heard last week, we are teaming up with BookWorm Saturday for a secret project to be revealed soon, so our theme yesterday was Superstitions in Literature. And what better way to commemorate this occasion than to have today’s Highlights picked by none other than the founder of #BookWormSat – the talented writer and author of the audiodrama Selkie, Signe Maene!

And thus, our first Highlight of today (as chosen by Signe), is a tale shared by P J Richards (author of the fantasy novel Deeper, Older, Darker), about the dreaded albatross. Made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it is said that killing an albatross while on a boat (whether that was intentional or accidental), was believed to be a terrible augur of calamity and doom for the entire crew. However, although this superstition seems to be entirely comfortable in today’s folklore, the credence was likely to have been but a plot line, adapted by the English poet from gulls and other coastal birds who were believed to be the souls of dead sailorsforever hovering over the site of their drowning. The albatross had not originally been one of these birds apparently, but thanks to Coleridge’s story, the superstition spread so widely that in 1959, the crew of the Calpean Star outside of Liverpool was reported to have blamed all their sea troubles on a dead albatross. According to a newspaper clipping collected by E.F. Coote Lake for volume 70, Issue 3 of the Folklore journal, the crew was found to have “complained of misfortunes during the voyage”, on account of an albatross being transported into a German zoo who got accidentally killed by a generous boatmanwho gave the hungry bird a sausage roll! To read about this hilarious, yet macabre misfortune in the Folklore journal, click here. If you do not have access to the publication, there is always The Rime of the Ancient Mariner available to read here, and a free look at the beautiful engravings by Gustav Doré for Coleridge’s poem at the British Library’s catalogue, shared here.

Tweet says:

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, features the belief that a lone albatross following a ship far out at sea is an omen of good luck, but to harm or kill one will bring terrible misfortune to the crew."

Includes photo of albatross flying close to the water's surface.
Tweet by P J Richards.

We move on to Signe’s second Highlight, as shared by our Folklore Friends ofdarkandmacabre, about another portentous bird: the owl. Long has this poor night creature been associated with death and catastrophe, predicted to hoot outside the windows of those about to die, as well as to bring news of terrible things to come. The owl’s appearance was especially feared if there was a sick member in the household, as that meant they would not recover; while other beliefs connected these birds with witches, whose many disguises included that of the owl, alongside hares and toads. So old is this belief that even the great William Shakespeare included it in his Julius Caesar, performed at the Globe Theatre for the first time in 1599and rightly quoted by ofdarkandmacabre below. However, the ill omens of the owl might have been observed even earlier in 1380, as seen in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls where it is said that “the oule eke, that of deth the bode bringeth”. To read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for free, click here, or if you fancy Chaucer’s Parlament of Foules instead, that’s here.

Tweet says:

"'And yesterday, the bird of flight did sit
Even at noonday upon the marketplace,
Howling and shrieking.'

Shakespeare presaging Caesar's death. An owl shrieking, especially in broad daylight, was a sign of impending doom since antiquity."

Includes drawing of owl credited to cosmicpush.
Tweet by ofdarkandmacabre.

The final Highlight chosen by the founder and co-host of BookWorm Saturday was about yet another bird of doom, mentioned in one of Signe Maene’s favourite novels: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Published in 1847, this jewel of Gothic Romance and English Literature tells the tale of the disastrous love between Heathcliff and his adopted father’s daughter, Catherine Earnshaw. With Mr Earnshaw’s passing, his firstborn son, Hindley, rejects Heathcliff and turns him into a stable boy. Years later, Catherine, who bore feelings for Heathcliff since they were children, decides to marry her neighbour Edgar Linton instead, trading a life of freedom on the moors for that of a higher social status. This poorly premeditated choice leads to upsetting results for Cathy’s health, who exclaims while laying sick in bed: “Ah, they put pigeons’ feathers in the pillows—no wonder I couldn’t die!” This was because, like owls (and albatrosses), pigeons were also considered “birds of death” and thus, extremely unlucky. For instance, one superstition said that if a rich man craved pigeon pie, then that was a sure sign that he was about to die. Though Emily Brontë’s focus was more on the superstition that: “[t]he presence of pigeon or game feathers is said to be another hindrance to the exit of the soul; and, occasionally, in order to facilitate its departure, the peasantry in many parts of England will lay a dying man on the floor.” This quote was from The Ghost World, by T. F. Thiselton Dyer published in 1893, which is available to read for free here. If you would like to read Wuthering Heights, well that’s free too, here!

Tweet says:

"Ah, they put pigeons' feathers in the pillows—no wonder I couldn't die!"

According to superstition, having pigeon feathers in a pillow prevents a sick person's peaceful departure into the afterlife.

Includes screenshot of the 1939 film 'Wuthering Heights', featuring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier.
Tweet by Joan Ava.

That was all for today! I hope you enjoyed this selection by Signe Maene, and join us again next week as we return to a regular Session, with warm and cosy superstitions about


As always, whether you’re old, new or just passing through, your presence is very much appreciated and I am glad to see you stop by for our #SuperstitionSat Sessions. Until next week!

– Superstition Sam 🐾